Retooled No. 18 Gonzaga begins its quest toward another national championship run with a limp heading into Friday’s season opener against Texas Southern at the McCarthey Athletic Center in Spokane, Wash.
The Bulldogs no longer have the core members of their historic season a year ago when they reached the NCAA title game in Phoenix before losing to North Carolina.
Gone are Nigel Williams-Goss (All-American point guard and West Coast Conference player of the year), Przemek Karnowski (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award as the nation’s top center), forward Zach Collins (NBA lottery pick and Gonzaga’s first one-and-done player) and sharp-shooting guard Jordan Mathews.
The influx of new talent for Mark Few, who is beginning his 19th season as Gonzaga’s head coach, has been met with injury concerns. The Zags will be hard-pressed to duplicate last year’s 29-0 start and 37-2 finish.
In last week’s final preseason tune-up in an exhibition against the College of Idaho, Gonzaga was without injured freshman guard Jesse Wade (shoulder) and junior forward Jeremy Jones (right wrist). Jones wore a cast to protect his wrist and forearm.
The status of each player for Friday’s opener is undetermined.
Wade, who also missed a preseason scrimmage against Texas A&M, may be out an extended amount of time because his shoulder injury reportedly involves a nerve issue.
“It is (hard to practice as a team),” Few said. “It’s our cross to bear this year. We’ve had teams like that where we just don’t have a lot of bodies.
“(Jones) got hit on the forearm (in practice) and it swelled up really bad. It’s kind of a bizarre injury that doesn’t go away very well. His wrist doesn’t really function until they get that (swelling) down.”
Texas Southern, picked by media and coaches to win the Southwest Athletic Conference title in the preseason, should present a challenging task for the Bulldogs.
Sixth-year coach Mike Davis, whose team reached the NCAA tournament last season and finished 23-12 overall and 16-2 in the SWAC, has a club that is predicted to win the conference title despite losing three fifth-year seniors, including SWAC player of the year Zach Lofton to New Mexico State.
“It’s going to be a big adjustment for us this year. I’m still trying to figure why they put us No. 1,” said Davis, who coached Indiana to the NCAA championship game in 2001-02. “We’re not sure what we’re going to be.”
Named to the SWAC preseason first team were guard Demontrae Jefferson and forward Kevin Scott. Forward Lamont Walker was on the second team. Davis will rely heavily on newcomers Donte Clark, a 6-foot-4 graduate transfer from UMass, and 7-2 Auburn transfer Trayvon Reed.
Gonzaga sophomore forward Killian Tillie, who continues his role as a top reserve this season, had 28 points against the College of Idaho despite missing a week of practice early in the preseason because of a sprained ankle.
Wade is a player Few figured to count on considerably with Williams-Goss and Mathews moving on. He averaged 26.8 points and made 45 percent of his 3-pointers as a senior in 2014-15 at Davis High School at Kaysville, Utah. He spent the last two years on an LDS mission in France.
His absence to start this season leaves the Zags with just four scholarship guards: senior Silas Melson, junior Josh Perkins, redshirt freshman Zach Norvell Jr. and 17-year-old true freshman Joel Ayayi.
Jones, who suffered a high ankle sprain early in the 2016-17 season, is in the mix for playing time at the wing and forward positions. The Zags have a little more depth at those spots with Norvell, Corey Kispert, Rui Hachimura, Tillie and Johnathan Williams.
Few said the heavy transition of talent is the “nature of the beast at Gonzaga.”
“Last year, I remember reading a deal on us and for the first time we lost two NBA guys in (Kyle) Wiltjer and (Domantas) Sabonis,” Few said. “It’s a great opportunity for J3 (Williams), Tillie, Perkins, Silas and then we have some other guys coming up the ranks.
“We’re counting on (Hachimura) to step in and help us. We’re banking on (Larsen) to really contribute. Norvell is going to have to play significant minutes. Certainly, we have to play a little differently because we’re not as big and bulky (without Karnowski) but that will be a fun challenge for the players and staff.”